Walkerton, Ontario: A wake-up to test your water

The desperate situation in Walkerton, Ontario, where the contamination of water from e-coli has resulted in 5 deaths, provides a grim wake-up call to all Canadians. We empathize with their terrible situation, grieve for their losses, and hope to learn much from their example.

At issue is the potability of water.

Is yours fit to drink?

Determining blame is irrelevant to the actual question of potability. The fact is that Walkerton’s water was contaminated by e-coli, a bacteria commonly found in fecal matter. Some residents may suffer permanent liver and kidney problems after drinking contaminated water.

What can we learn from this? First, that here in Canada we cannot take water for granted. Second, that householders should take responsibility for testing their own water.

And that municipalities and all levels of governments must be vigilant, particularly when downsizing already stretches public servants such that private labs and consultants are working for the public. What tests are being done, and what the tests include, quite apart from the reporting of such tests in a timely manner, requires critical monitoring.

It sounds as if Walkerton, like most of our villages here in Pontiac, was at the mercy of an overtaxed system where residents were assuming their health was being looked after.

So, what can we householders do to ensure our water is safe here in the Pontiac?

I first asked the advice of several neighbours and friends but no-one was sure how to test their water. Here’s what I discovered during my telephone calls on Monday.

Mavis Thompson at the MAPAQ office in Shawville was my first call and no, MAPAQ doesn’t conduct or arrange for tests. She advised me to contact Shawville’s Essiam pharmacy. François Laflamme at Essiam (627-2207), said they had sold out of kits due to the Walkerton scare. Three or four more kits were supposed to arrive on Tuesday 30th May.

Next I telephoned my municipality (Municipality of Pontiac, 455-2401) and spoke to Lucy St-Aubin. She said the MoP used to sell bottles for testing, but they now advise residents to contact Micro-B Lab at 184 Freiman Road in Hull (778-0020).

Micro-B Lab does do testing. They will sell you a kit for $31 plus tax. You fill it with water, than return it to them. After they analyze it using a thorough coliform test, including one for e-coli, they let you know the results.

Assistant Manager Michel Bellavance at the Jean-Coutu pharmacy located at 181 rue Principale in Aylmer (684-0006) said he had no kits on hand, so promised to do some investigating. He reported back late Monday afternoon after having ordered some kits that test water for bacteria. These are self-testing kits: you take your own sample then send it by courier to a lab. Results, he thinks, come back after 48 hours. Mr. Ballavance but asks you to call him to ensure kits have arrived before you make the trip.

Next Week

Eric is going to Micro-B lab in Hull on Tuesday May 30. I’ll advise you in next week’s column if there’s any further information regarding the lab and procedures to follow.

Six Crucial Questions

Before you spend any of your hard-earned money or time on a kit, ask questions. (I am writing this from the perspective of someone who obtains water from a deeply drilled well. Alter your questions accordingly if you take water directly from a stream, shallow sand-point well or other source, including municipal water works.)

1. Will the kit test for e-coli and other bacteria? Find out what the tests are intended for prior to purchase. Don’t be like the lab at Walkerton which apparently didn’t get a test that screened for e-coli.

2. How do you take the water sample? Somehow get it directly from the well (if you have one)? From the tap? Which tap?

3. Assuming that you take the water from the kitchen tap, for how long do you let the water run before taking the sample? Micro-B lab in Hull suggests 10 minutes prior to putting some in their sterile bottle. Why? If you simply turn on the tap and fill the bottle, you are testing the water that is already in your plumbing system. If you let it run for ten minutes and then take a water sample, you are testing the water from source.

Note to the wise: Before Eric’s parents sold their home, they tested their farm’s well water and were surprised to find that although the well was okay, the pipes were not. They had to pour bleach into the well and run all the taps to purify the system. Remember: after you do this you cannot use your water for several days so buy bottled water else fill containers from another source so you have drinking and washing water on hand.

4. What container do you use to collect the sample? Labs provide sterile bottles into which you put the water directly from the tap. Don’t pour the water into another container and then pour it into the bottle as you may be introducing contaminants into the test.

5. What is the cost of a kit or a test? Micro-B lab says they can conduct more elaborate tests -- but for what and for how much? Find out.

6. How frequently should water testing be done? Micro-lab told me once a year, in spring.

Early Warning

Closer to the Pontiac, in Cumberland, the City of Cumberland and Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (RMOC) just tested 125 private wells “as part of a new program of rural water monitoring in response to concerns about the breakdown of old septic systems in the area. Preliminary data from those tests indicated that bacteria were found in 20 of the 25 wells.” (The Ottawa Citizen, May 28) Although the “total coliforms” which were found in the well-water are not the same or as dangerous as e-coli, residents were advised to “treat their well water or drink bottled water until the safety of their well water is confirmed.”

Just as that newspaper suggested, Cumberland’s test results serve as a warning.

Dr. Edward Ellis, associate medical officer of health for that region, further explained, “Some people don’t have their septic tanks pumped on a regular basis. If nothing floats to the surface, they figure there's no problem. But it could very well be overflowing and spreading out into the wells and contaminating the water.”

In Ontario, the RMOC suggests testing household water twice annually. The Citizen reports them advising “in the spring, when it’s wet, and in the fall, when water levels are low, as well as after any major plumbing work. The test is done free of charge by the Ontario Ministry of Health’s Public Health Laboratory at 2380 St. Laurent Blvd., 736-6800.


Bird notes: Thanks to Otter Lake reader Ralph Kretz for his letter asking about wild turkeys and cormorants. This week’s urgent water issue bumped the bird talk. But… “our” catbird is back. Who else has seen new birds?


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based in Quyon, West Québec. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com